OOXML: ISO Meeting Causes Controversy

Mar 07, 2008

The ISO standardization organization meeting convened to discuss OOXML has now come to an end and contradictory reports on the proceedings have caused some concern. So much so, that ISO has now issued a statement.

At the end of February, member organizations from 33 countries met in Geneva to discuss the extensive comments submitted to the authority after the first round of voting went against the Microsoft format. The participants were asked to discuss more than 6000 pages of suggested changes; according to wear a statement by some delegates, this was absolutely possible. In order to find some kind of result, a vote was held, but there is some doubt about the legality of the proceedings, as Rob Weir from IBM stated in his blog.

All the most of the participants abstained, and some of them completely boycotted the vote, the final result was a four-four tie. After roping in further delegates, the final result of the vote was 6 for and 4 against. Of course, only the final vote counts, and Microsoft’s Jason Matusow was quick to claim that “The Open XML Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) Was An Unqualified Success”. Matusow also points to positive comments by the Danish and Norwegian delegations.

The standardization authority has now spoken up and the tone of the statement seems more than slightly disgruntled: The BRM was a technical meeting open to delegates that were duly nominated by the ISO and IEC national member bodies and registered for the meeting. The BRM was not intended to be a public event but followed the orderly and inclusive process of ISO and IEC."

ISO also makes it quite clear that the meeting did not bring about a decision on the proposal, but simply reached an agreement on the amendments proposed in the comments following the first vote. Commenting on the unusual proceedings, ISO writes: "When it was apparent that it would not be possible for all comments to be reviewed individually, the meeting discussed and agreed on a voting procedure to decide on the remaining proposed modifications." According to ISO most of the resolutions were unanimous, some accepted by consensus, four by a simple majority and four were refused. ISO refuses to accept criticism concerning the experience of the committee, stating that: “The BRM was organized by subcommittee SC 34, Document description and processing languages, of ISO/IEC JTC 1. ISO/IEC JTC 1 is one of the most experienced and productive of ISO and IEC technical committees, having developed some 2 150 widely and globally used international standards and related documents."

In contrast to this, the legal commentary page Groklaw refers to documents on the proceedings and to audio recordings that would allow a contrary interpretation of the meeting. And representatives from various countries have also indicated that the voting procedure was inadequate. For example, Malaysia criticizes the fact that technical questions were not sufficiently covered during the meeting.

Independently of the controversy, the 30-day count down in which the 87 national member bodies can review their decisions of September 2 is now running. Members have until March 29 to withdraw their negative votes or abstentions. If this does not happen, it will mean the end of the “short track” for OOXML, and the Microsoft standard will have failed, at least for the time being. ISO writes: "With the BRM review completed, it is now up to national bodies to determine whether approval of ISO/IEC DIS 29500 is warranted."

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